The trouble with France’s ‘First Lady’

‘Is Valerie Trierweiler still the First Lady of France?‘ was asked of President François Hollande today. Much attention has focused on his insistence that this is a private matter. But the question is as interesting as the lack of an answer.

There is no ‘First Lady’ of France. There is no such position. It has no legal status. It is a title conferred upon the wife of the U.S. President. The U.S. President and the First Lady embody a gendered division of labour between the head and the heart, or reason and emotion. The President embodies reason, deliberation and decision-making. The First Lady embodies emotion, especially caring and compassion. This arrangement seems to have some influence over French admirers of the United States. Hence ‘First Lady’ of France.

President Hollande’s alleged affair with actress Julie Gayet throws a wrench in this division of labour. Emotion appears to have interfered with his decision-making to such an extent that he risked exposure and ridicule in his clandestine visits to Ms Gayet’s apartment on the back of a scooter. The ‘First Lady’, Valérie Trierweiler, meanwhile checks herself into a hospital because she is emotionally unwell.

This gendered emotional division of labour is unwell too and should be put out of its misery. Emotions are central to ‘rational’ decision-making, not a threat to it. The French know this. So why is this question being asked of the President of France?

With infidelity, it’s not the sex that does the most damage, it’s the deceit and lying. A better question to the President would be: ‘if you deceive the woman you live with, how can the people of France trust you not to deceive them?’

President Hollande will clarify things before his visit to Washington on February 11.

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